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Agneta Pleijel, Drottningens chirurg (The Queen's Surgeon)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789113015989

Reviewed by Anne Born in SBR 2007:1

Agneta Pleijel is one of Sweden’s leading novelists and poets, with a long string of awards and prizes, including The Gustaf Fröding prize for poetry in 2005. The Queen’s Surgeon is a historical novel set in the eighteenth century. It is a study in childbirth; the leading character, Herman Schützer, is an esteemed Stockholm obstetrician, whose working life takes place in a time when the Caesarian section is still being developed yet is resorted to if drastic methods are all the doctor is left with in difficult cases. For readers with no medical knowledge or, in fact, experience of childbirth the descriptions of the process are clear and not too scientific. What makes them extremely realistic is the visual setting in which events take place, written in an elegant poetic style even when the surroundings and happenings are stark. This experienced author is sure of what she intends to convey and is also a gifted writer of dialogue. There is no “historical novelese” in these pages but a factual narrative. The effect of naturalness is enhanced by the wealth of care given to the description of the setting, the weather – inevitably, hard winter – houses, clothes and the struggle to survive in a period still in some ways emerging from the Middle Ages. Schützer is a sincere doctor who wants the best for his patients, and he gives plenty of time to consider whether or not to perform a Caesarean section when natural birth seems impossible. He does not always succeed, and when he is depressed after a failed delivery, he is helped and comforted by his wife Nella. Most people treat him with respect, almost awe, but Nella is not backward in coming with criticisms when she feels strongly that he has his faults. This is a fine biography, allowing freedom to fictionalize, in part, about a great surgeon, and therefore it is also medical history, well researched and presented with sympathy and realism. The reader will enjoy contrasting the (to us) primitive methods, and the joys and despairs of a healer in success and failure throughout a long fruitful career. The medical detail is back-grounded by the picture of the age and by a deftly managed, enormous cast of varied characters, ranging from royalty down to the humblest subject, and physical description of all the mores and conditions of the time. In her postscript the author notes that this book is the first of an intended series of novels. She tells us that some of the characters are based on real persons with whom she has allowed herself freedom to imagine certain aspects of their lives. She expresses gratitude to Herman Schützer, whose writings she has made use of, including those concerning the case of the Queen’s Ethiopian slave boy, Phaeton.

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